Updated: Mar 24
Life is hard enough but can feel almost impossible when you are fighting your mind along the way. Have you ever experienced crippling self-doubt, worst-case scenario deep dives, or been stuck on the rumination treadmill?
Elite sport is a place that teaches athletes in no uncertain terms the value of effective thinking. Outcomes are clearly defined and the process is there for everyone to see. You have two highly trained athletes going head to head, and it quickly becomes clear when one of them has the better mental game.
As an elite sport psychologist for over 20 years, it has been my job to help athletes learn to interact more efficiently with their minds.
I believe that these insights and skills are not just useful for athletes, but essential for everyone in today’s fast-paced, pressure-filled world. We can all learn how to think more simply and easily.
Let’s be clear. You could succeed — and probably are — without checking and challenging your thinking. It’s like driving a car without changing the oil or taking it in for regular maintenance. Sure, it’s still running (and think of the money you’re saving!). But the gas mileage sucks and the engine is making strange noises…who knows how much better it could be running with a few simple tune-ups?
How well is your mind running, by the way?
How would you even know if you’re not tuning in to it?
The thing is, we don’t get handed mind instruction manuals at birth. So we learn by living, assuming that whatever is happening in our heads is “normal.” We end up habitually driving with our minds in second gear. At times, we unintentionally compromise both our performance and our happiness. And we can’t even turn to the manual’s troubleshooting page for help.
Savvy athletes looking for an edge don’t leave their minds’ performance to chance or wait for life to teach them its lessons. You don’t have to, either. Each topic below contains mind-unlocking insights and strategies that will help you think smarter, faster, and perform better under pressure.
1. Bust Common Mind Myths
My Mind Has It In For Me
Your mind is a thinking machine, producing over 60,000 thoughts a day. Most thoughts are so ephemeral and inconsequential, we are unaware of having thought them.
It’s not our mind, but our mental habits that get us into trouble. We inadvertently teach ourselves to hook onto particular thoughts, and not always the most useful ones.
We bust this myth by recognising that we can choose and change the thoughts we want to engage with, or not.
My Mind Should Make Me Happy
Unfortunately, evolution favoured our survival over our happiness. This reality meant that our minds have been honed more as threat assessors than happiness machines.
The good news is that we have since evolved into the only species on the planet with the ability to be aware of, observe, and evaluate the usefulness of our thoughts.
We bust this myth when we appreciate that happiness is not an entitlement but rather something we cultivate.
I Can Control My Thoughts
Ever try to not think about something? Try not thinking about a pink elephant. Ha, gotcha.
We bust this myth when we stop trying to control our thoughts in favour of building better relationships with them. Here, no thought is unwelcome; rather it may just get less air time.
2. Make Friends With Your Thoughts
Turning Inward Can Be Hard To Do
It turns out that most people don’t really like being alone with their thoughts. Researchers have found that, for some people, a self-inflicted electric shock was preferable to being alone with their thinking. Gulp.
Particularly for those of us fed a steady diet of technological distractions, this idea of just being still and turning inward can feel aversive at first.
It can be helpful to liken the practice of observing your thoughts to how it feels like going to the gym. Every time we spend doing this will be different, just like some fitness sessions make us hurt, while others seem easier.
And while the thought watching road may be uneven, it’s the trend over time that counts. Keep at it!
Name That Thought
In the interest of getting to know what’s going on in your mind, it can be a good exercise to be still, notice what your mind is doing, and label (without judgment) what’s happening. As in “thinking.” “planning.” “fantasizing.”…etc.
This can be helpful as a way to stabilize our attention to what is happening by giving us more to attend to. Jeff Warren, meditation teacher extraordinaire, talks about this being the practice of using thinking to hack our thinking.
3. Deflating Unhelpful Thoughts
Without a way of checking in, we are often lost in the stream of thinking, not even realising how unhelpful some of it is. We can choose which thoughts to buy into and which ones to let slide on by. Here are two ways to strengthen our awareness about which is which.
Ask The Magic Question: Is this thought helpful? The beauty of this question is that it side-steps the “but it’s not fair!” or “it shouldn’t be this way” arguments we can get into that can end up reinforcing our negative thinking.
We practice accepting the unhelpful nature of the thought (without falling unintentionally into the trap of castigating our minds for being so unhelpful…which is — you guessed it — just another unhelpful thought). This simple acknowledgment (if done with self-compassion and non-judgment) can often be a game-changer all by itself.
Buffer Yourself From Unhelpful Thoughts
Rather than trying to control or get rid of unhelpful thoughts, this is about gaining some psychic distance from them or even gleefully taking the piss out of them.
Consider the difference between these two statements: 1. “I’m a terrible public speaker.” and 2. “I’m having the thought that I’m a terrible public speaker.” This simple phrase, “I’m having the thought that…” becomes a built-in buffer against the power of unhelpful thought.
Another idea: singing your most debilitating thoughts to a nursery rhyme tune. Athletes love this. Singing, “I will never win big races and should just quit” to the tune of Happy Birthday is often the first time they have ever smiled about their worst fears.
4. Correct Your Thinking Errors
Our threat-assessing minds are unfortunately equipped with out-dated software that can make our thinking more difficult. Here are some common mental errors to watch for and ways to adjust your thinking to be more accurate.
Mind-reading (Usually Evil Intent)
“You are crazy!” “He must hate me!” “She is going to fire me!”
Have you ever attributed motives to others or decided you “knew” what they were thinking…without the evidence?
The problem? You’ve formed a judgment that (usually) has a low probability of being true. Second: you’ve created unnecessary suffering for yourself. Third: mind-reading rarely plays well with others. Few people enjoy being told what they are thinking, especially when it’s off-base.
The solution? Recognise mind-reading as it’s happening, and “try on” other scenarios that fit the evidence. Second, turn away from mind-reading to fact-checking. Ask the person what he or she is thinking.
Predicting A Worst-Case Future
“I’m sure I’m going to lose.” “What if I don’t make the team?” “I’ll never be good at this!”
Our threat assessing instincts can cast us into the future with a focus, if not on the worst-case scenario, into a series of endless “what ifs.” Never mind that your future has not yet been written and that there are any number of potentially less catastrophic possibilities.
This bites us in two ways. Festering worry — especially that which focuses on outcomes we can’t control — is never enjoyable. Second, this future-focused attention blocks us from our present moment experience which is, as we know, the only moment we control and that research suggests tends to make us happier.
Thoughts as Character-Assassinating Labels
What do you say to yourself after a mistake or social misstep? When I ask athletes this question, here are some zingers: “I suck.” “I’m an idiot.” “I’m a choker.” “I’m not a big-game player.” Do any of these sound familiar?
A fair few high achievers believe that if your self-talk isn’t lacerating, you’ll lose your edge. As it turns out, neuroscience research examining the effect on different types of self-thought on the brain disagrees. Cultivating a more self-compassionate voice increases resilience, as it soothes our reaction to failure and allows for a quicker transition to personal agency and whatever’s next.
I don’t argue with athletes who are afraid to give up their inner drill sergeant. I do pose the question about how efficient it is to first tear yourself down, then pick yourself back up again before you can get back to your job.
Is that an efficient road to excellence?
The play here? Well, it’s not to try to outsmart the mind at its own irrational thought-producing game. It can be helpful, instead, to switch your approach from “why does my mind always do this?” to appreciating your mind’s efforts on your behalf and moving on to more helpful thinking.
You, Too, Can Think “Simple and Easy”
Imagine being able to think about the future with more calm and space in your head.
Imagine a reality where your mind is more like a wise and soothing companion rather than a hypervigilant shock-jock.
Imagine going into stressful situations feeling like you are more like the eye of the hurricane rather than feeling “hunkered down” hoping your psychic roof doesn’t blow off.
I’d love to say that all these results (and more!!) are yours for having read this. Gaining insight into your mind’s proclivities can help move you toward a different perspective on your thinking, often improving the quality of that thinking.
At the same time, if you are serious about shifting your relationship with your mind and your thoughts, there’s work to be done. The good news is that the brain is infinitely malleable and so learning new ways to be is always possible.
Practice. I pose this scenario to athletes: you’re about to compete at Worlds, and your coach decides to change your technique as you are going out onto the field. What’s the likelihood of that technique working without any practice? Maybe not zero — you are an elite athlete, after all, so maybe you can pull something cool off — but it’s unlikely because usually, you can’t do it yet and furthermore don’t believe you can do it. The same applies to rewiring your relationship with your mind. Imagine yourself in situations where these ideas might come in handy and see yourself applying them. Role-play in your head.
Remember. The biggest reason sport psychology techniques are ineffective is that athletes forget to use them. Remembering can be harder to do than it sounds, for the times you will most need these insights are the times your thoughts are most likely to have you by the throat. Athletes learn to build mental skills into routines, usually starting with a breath (which gives you some pause) and one or more cue words to remind them.
What has worked for many a nerve-wracked, self-sabotaging, or overly threat-assessing athlete will work for you. Time to give it a go!